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4:46 AM   April 25, 2015
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Critter Corner: Sharp-Dressed Pet

Quiet and clean, hedgehogs can make ideal companions with proper care.
By Peggy Scott

First imported to the United States in the 1980s, hedgehogs remain relative newcomers to the pet scene. But they’ve made a big impression quickly. From the tips of their pointed, ultra-sensitive little noses to the ends of their stubby little tails, hedgehogs are unique, and for the right type of owner—one that will accept these animals for what they are—these tidy and quiet insectivores can be perfect pets.

In a Class of Their Own

Supplements to hedgehog diets can include mealworms, crickets and small pieces of fruit. Credit: Carolyn McKeone/Courtesy of Stephanie Holt
These charismatic critters pack a lot of personality into their 1-pound, 6- to 8-inch-long packages, according to Becca Loane of southwest Missouri, who has written articles for the Hedgehog World website, which is a national organization of hedgehog breeders and enthusiasts that she is a member of.

“I compare pet hedgehogs (African pygmy hedgehogs) to cats because they’re a little independent with periods of playfulness,” Loane offered.  “A good hedgehog owner is a person who doesn’t require adoration from their pets—someone who is willing to take them for what they are.”

And what they are are interesting little imports. The International Hedgehog Association’s (IHA) website, stated that the domestic hedgehog kept in North America, South America, parts of Europe and Japan is “the result of the crossing of two distinctly different species of African Hedgehog—the white-bellied (Atelerix albiventris) and the Algerian (Atelerix algirus).”

The hedgehog is intriguing from nose to toes—while its belly is covered with soft, white fur, its back is adorned with impressive quills. The IHA currently recognizes 92 color varieties.

“Through captive breeding, we’ve gotten a wide range of colors,” Loane said. “From albinos to apricots, cinnamons, snowflakes, pintos, all kinds.”

When choosing hedgehogs, either as pets or to sell in a shop, according to the “Hedgehog Care Information Sheet” on the Hedgehog Central website which began as a newsletter for what is now the IHA, the signs of good health to look for include the following: bright eyes, a non-runny nose, clean ears, soft and non-matted belly fur, no bare spots in the spines (quills), a plump (but not fat) body, no green droppings or diarrhea in the cage, a gait that’s between a walk and a shuffle (no wobbling), and clear breathing.

Personality-wise, hedgehogs are quiet, gentle and happy to interact with their keepers if properly socialized. Loane said they love playing with toys, with some preferring felt mice or other small cat toys; others can entertain themselves with empty toilet paper rolls.

“They like anything they can push around, climb through, climb over.” Loane said. “They are really curious.”

Handle with Care

Toys that appeal to hedgehogs can range from felt mice or other small cat toys to empty toilet paper rolls. Credit: Carolyn McKeone/Courtesy of Pet Paradise, London, Ontario, Canada
Probably the hedgehog’s most notable characteristic is its coat of quills. These quills have been the subject of considerable misinformation—particularly one myth that is quite a sticking point with fans of this animal.

“They cannot, do not, shoot their quills,” Loane stated. “Quills are like stiff hairs. They may lose a few here and there like we do with our hair. And unlike the porcupine, hedgehog quills don’t have barbs on them. They’re more like  round toothpicks, pointy on the end.”

Although hedgehogs rarely bite, they have another way of getting their point across. According to the article “Introduction to Hedgehogs” on  the Hedgehog Central website, a frightened hedgehog can roll up into a tight ball, resembling a sea urchin.

“They have a line of muscle where the quills meet the flesh, and it acts like a drawstring,” Loane said. “All rolled up, you can’t tell which end is which. Predators can’t find a meal.”

Loane added that there are ways to clearly read a hedgehog’s body language.

“When they’re calm, the quills lay completely smooth,” she noted. “If they are semi-calm, they raise their forehead quills. If they’re nervous, the quills are raised. And if they’re really scared, they roll up into the ball.”

When she takes a hedgehog out of its cage, Loane uses a technique that helps keep the animal feeling safe.

“Reach in and put your hands, palm-side up, on either side of the hedgehog,” she advised. “Slip them together under him and lift. He feels supported and safe.”
Keeping House for a Hedgehog

Bedding, hideouts, litterboxes and exercise wheels are beneficial additions to hedgehogs’ cages. Credit: Isabelle Francais/BowTie Inc.
Hedgehogs are relatively low-maintenance pets, but they do have basic care needs. Since they hail from warm-weather locations, they thrive in a temperature range of 70 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit.“Below 70 degrees and they can go into hibernation, which can be fatal,” Loane cautioned.

For housing, Loane uses Super Pet cages with plastic tray bottoms (solid surface) and wire tops for good ventilation. She suggested a size of four square feet minimum—on one level, to help prevent falls. For cage-floor covering, Loane recommended retailers suggest Carefresh-type bedding or good-quality pine or aspen shavings. These critters also might appreciate hideouts to burrow into. A litterbox can go in a cage as well, and, as the article “An Introduction to the Hedgehog” on the Hedgehog Central website noted, most hedgehogs are “easily” litter-trained.

Another “must” is an exercise wheel, since wheel-running is the main activity that helps keep hedgehogs from getting hefty.

“It has to be large enough, and it must be solid-surfaced,” Loane stated.

When it’s time to eat, hedgehogs can meet their nutritional needs with good-quality cat food that’s not too high in fat or protein, Loane suggested, adding that some commercial hedgehog diets are not suitable. Meals can be supplemented with goodies, such as mealworms and crickets, and maybe small pieces of fruit.

“Mine go nuts for scrambled eggs,” Loane said. “But only feed it in small quantities.”

With proper diet and care, a pet hedgehog can be part of the family for 4 to 7 years.

But as charming as hedgehogs can be, they’re not for everyone—especially according to the law. Considered an exotic animal, hedgehogs are illegal in some states, including California, Georgia and Hawaii, according to the Hedgehog Central website; other states have restrictions, and they’re not allowed in parts of some states, such as the five boroughs of New York City.

Loane not only wants to make sure that hedgehogs are going to legal homes, but happy ones as well.

“I’m all for a pet store that provides care information,” she said. “Make sure people know what a hedgehog is and accept them on their terms.” <HOME>

Pet-writer Peggy Scott has a BA in journalism and is certified in pet CPR. Her work appears in magazines, newspapers and on the Web.

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